Friday, March 1, 2024

Djokovic, Australia and dealing with a partisan crowd

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Walking to his chair during the changeover of his match against Italian Jannik Sinner, the jeers and boos from the Turin crowd began. As he sat, Novak Djokovic raised both his arms gesturing as if to say — keep them coming. Then, like a classic conductor of an orchestra, he waved his arms while lifting his index fingers to give the crowd a rhythmic tune for the boos. The fans, unequivocally behind their home boy, tried to beat Djokovic in the mind. Except, Djokovic was tuning up his own mental beats.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic reacts during the final match against Italy’s Jannik Sinner at the ATP Finals tennis tournament(AFP)

Miles away and days later, in front of over 90,000 fans unequivocally behind their home team, Australian captain Pat Cummins would’ve felt something similar. Not quite in stirring up a symphony, but more in the silence that often engulfed the gigantic Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.

In both these sporting spectacles, the champion-mentality composers embraced the partisan crowd rather than envy it or evade it. The end result was pretty similar. Djokovic, having lost that match to Sinner in the round robin stage of the ATP Finals, won the season-ending tournament for a record seventh time (going past Roger Federer) defeating the same man in the final on Sunday night. Hours prior to that, Cummins and Co, having lost to India in the opening match of the 2023 ICC World Cup, won the trophy for a record-extending sixth time beating the same team in the final.

One did it by spurring the crowd and with it his own inner beast mode. The other by silencing the crowd and with it walking the pre-match talk.

For reasons complex and varied, Djokovic has never been a crowd favourite in the era of Federer and Nadal romantics. He certainly wasn’t over the last week in Turin, jeered and booed a few times during his matches. In a sport like tennis where on-court spectators are more up, close and personal to the action and can get actively involved, players can also react more emotionally to negativity. Some, like Daniil Medvedev, can let it get to their head while others try to block it.

Djokovic does neither. He, in fact, takes that negative energy from the outside to kindle the fire inside. A riled-up Djokovic can be twice as damaging compared to a passive Djokovic. And the Serb often gets that prod from the crowd that is almost always not rooting for him.

Taking on local hope Taylor Fritz in the quarter-finals of this US Open where perhaps everyone on the court other than Djokovic and his box was cheering for the American, Djokovic said it acted as a fuel to drive across the finish line playing his best tennis. “I thrive on that energy, whatever the energy is, use it as a fuel to try and play my best tennis,” he said.

Djokovic did admit, after the epic 2019 Wimbledon final with Federer where, again, the fans were very vocal about which side they were on, that crowd support can give that lift when it’s most needed. And when it doesn’t come organically, the 24-time Grand Slam champion manufactures it like only a serial winner can.

“When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger’, I hear ‘Novak’,” Djokovic said after winning that five-set treat. “It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”

It needed the Australian captain no convincing that the only way to not let the 90,000-odd Indian fans have an impact on Sunday’s final was to keep them quiet for as long as possible. And Cummins, in a rather un-Cummins but very Australian way, proclaimed that to be their goal on the big day.

“I think you’ve got to embrace it,” Cummins said on the eve of the final. “The crowd’s obviously going to be very one-sided but, in sport there’s nothing more satisfying than hearing a big crowd go silent and that’s the aim for us.”

And so, when Travis Head sprinted for a single to complete a commendable century in the chase, Australia relished the silence. Or when Cummins got a set Virat Kohli to chop one back on to the stumps, Australia relished the silence.

“We did take a second in the huddle just to acknowledge the silence that was going around the crowd,” Cummins said of that moment after the win.

“Silence was their friend”, as Mitchell Starc told the ICC, on that special day against that extraordinary setting where stands collectively bled blue but all that glittered, eventually, was the Aussie gold.

And what about that conductor turning boos into melody? Well, Djokovic continues to churn out title-winning and record-setting tunes. Never mind the crowd being out of sync.

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